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Italian Sources of Singing Part 1

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Many concepts and singing practices have come down to us from the Italian singing masters of the 17th and 18th centuries through Maneul Garcia Jr.’s (1805-1906) interpretations and those of his students. Examples include: chest voice (lower register vocalizing), falsetto voice (high male register, right above the chest register), head voice (upper register, right above falsetto register), legato (connected singing), intonation (singing in tune), coloratura (ornamented use of the voice), portamento (gliding violin-like between notes some distance apart), appoggiatura (an embellishing, supporting note close to its neighboring note), and trilling (exaggerated, but controlled fluttering of the voice along a melody line).

Some of the old master’s concepts like legato singing, singing with precise intonation, and trilling are easily understood techniques of artistic singing. But other technical terms like head voice, for example, are very confusing. Sometimes the masters speak of head voice as though it were interchangeable with the falsetto voice, and yet in other instances the head voice seems to refer to a different kind of vocal sound all together. And what did Garcia believe? He argued for a tripartite register system—the chest voice, the falsetto voice, and the head voice. The chest voice is not difficult to understand, it’s the voice that roughly corresponds to the register in which we speak. The head voice is above the falsetto voice and is utilized mostly by sopranos for the highest notes, this designation is not very helpful, however. It still is not clear how a falsetto voice is different from head tones, especially if the falsetto tones are produced with additional resonance. (There are other problems with the treatment of registers, generally, that I will address below). Otherwise, his essential ideas are relatively easy to grasp, some of which are really eye-opening.

Garcia apparently believed in the idea of breath control, though it is evident that he did not subscribe to any theory of mask singing. In his Hints on Singing (1894), he suggests that singers might view their throats (the pharynx) as their mouths—thereby implying singing from the throat: “The real mouth of a singer ought to be considered the pharynx.” The idea of singing from the throat (which is very far from the facial area, by the way) horrifies modern voice instructors and gives us a hint as to how far modern voice instruction has moved from its Italian sources.

Gary Catona, photo by Issam Zejly



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